With the opening reception of the Vexing exhibit behind me, I'd like to say a little about the way in which this experience has changed and is continuing to change me. Colin Gunckel and Pilar Tompkins put on a very ambitious exhibition, both in scope and depth. It reached out with long arms to people whose relevance to the East LA music scene was not obvious and thus sparked controversy; it plunged deeply into virginal archives to illustrate the beauty and creativity of an under-appreciated music and art scene.
Points of Departure, an installation by Jessee V. and Colin Gunckel, currently on display at the Claremont Museum of Art.
The road to Claremont was a difficult one for me. On one side of the LA River, I was perceived by some as betraying the Hollywood scene. To quote part of a nasty email: "I think it's kind of creepy that you'd sell out the old scene just to be down with a couple of dink bands." On the other side of the LA River, there was much discussion about who should be included in the show and which participants were perceived as outsiders.
Detail from "Do The Math", a 10' x 50' paint on canvas installation by Diane Gamboa.
To top it all off, there was an undercurrent of denial of the racist and sexist landscape against which punk played out. My statement to the LA Times that by 1979, some Eastside musicians felt that the Hollywood punk scene was closed and unwelcoming was seen as an attack on the integrity of that scene, despite the fact that some of the individuals interviewed in the Women in Punk section of my website mentioned that they themselves had difficulty breaking into the LA punk scene in the late seventies. The fact that Eastsiders were making the same assertion was interpreted as an accusation of racism and I was accused of "playing the race card."
I found this very insulting, so I deliberately set out to get some answers by questioning some of my friends who had frequented the Vex. I wanted to find out who had and who hadn't experienced racism in the LA Punk scene. Not surprisingly, the results were mixed: some people had racism to report while others did not, which only seems to prove that racism was not more concentrated in the punk scene than it was in the general population; neither was it completely absent. Some people felt it and some didn't. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a myth buster for some, who wanted to believe the Hollywood scene was a utopia. Even though I frequently say that I didn't feel discriminated against, my experiences are my own. I will not deny anyone the right to point out discrimination by belittling their experiences with a dismissive phrase like "playing the race card." This response is insulting and only discourages people from shedding light on discrimination. Racism is not a game to be played, nor is there any real victory to be won by bringing it into an argument. If whatever argument you are trying to make is predicated on perceived racial favoritism or discrimination, it's legitimacy will be called into question, so most people I know will avoid bringing race into the discussion at all. Many Latinos I know would rather deal with racism in quieter ways, precisely because they don't want to be accused of playing the race card. And that is how accusing people of playing the race card effectively silences anyone from bringing up issues of racism and supports the status quo.
The fact that the Vexing show ignited this discussion is a great thing. That is what art is supposed to do: challenge people, provoke, and raise uncomfortable questions. A week after the show opened, there is a new article in the LA Times where the question of racism in the LA punk scene is still being explored. This Vexing show has been like a much needed enema, so let's get all the shit out of our systems and see what happens.
Lysa Flores, Alice Bag and Gaby Godhead live at Vexing opening show, 5/17/08, photo by fauxtografer.
Being involved with the show has made me realize that even though I wasn't a regular at the Vex, the East LA scene did not exist in a vacuum. Hollywood's punk scene preceded it and other music scenes preceded that one. Like Tenochtitlan, where each culture is built upon a previous one, each artist, whether or not he or she knows it, builds upon a foundation that stood before them. Thank you to the young artists who helped me understand that. Thank you to the curators, who believed in the validity of my place in East LA punk history before I did. Thank you to my friends, who shared their previously untold experiences of racism with me. Thank you to all of those who continue to challenge me, disagree and/or agree with me; you make the road to and from Claremont a fruitful one.